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Integrating Anaerobic Digestion Into Our Culture Part 1: Language, Visuals and Values

North America is at an inflection point in managing organic materials. Just as paper, metal and plastics were the darlings of the recycling industry a few decades ago, our society is defining a new relationship with organic materials — one that harnesses the full carbon, energy and nutrient potential of organics. In order to help shape that new relationship, industry leaders are cultivating North America's awareness and understanding of anaerobic digestion's features, benefits and potential role in society. This two-part article explores the ways the waste, energy and agricultural industries are integrating this technology into our culture.

Everyone likes a good story, and the anaerobic digestion industry is using its storytelling toolkit – juicy language, creative visuals and motivational platforms — to capture the imagination of the public. From coast to coast, vocabulary describing digestion expands with each new project.  For example, look at taglines and headlines as a litmus test of biogas lingo. Organic Resource Management uses “Leftovers to Lights” for its anaerobic endeavors. “Watts from Wastewater” headlined a Biomass Magazine article on a digester in New Jersey. Oregon and other dairy digesters use “Cow Power” to describe the process. Harvest Power calls its digesters “Energy Gardens” to reflect the many positive growth opportunities associated with digestion. The trend in the tone of this messaging is characterized by playful, inviting, easy-to-digest vocabulary.

Many claim anaerobic digestion as the next generation of organics management. Part of that equation includes ushering in the next generation. With coaching from her aunt, this author’s precocious seven-year-old niece summarized the process as follows:

Anaerobic digestion is awesome. You put stuff, like a pizza crust, into a warm, airtight box. Then tiny bugs eat up the yummy things like the fats, sugars and breads. Then the bugs burp and fart! And if you capture those burps and farts — it’s biogas — you can use it for electricity, heat or fuel. It’s really cool.

It is truly inspiring to see little ones get switched on to the potential of power laying in their pizza crusts. I predict we will see an increasing number of programs designed to educate the next generation about biogas, biomass, anaerobic digestion, etc.

In our screen-saturated society, the industry is also using visuals to help stir the senses. A snapshot from the past year includes videos, cartoons and crowd-surfing cows. Fortis BC, for example, cooked up a cartoon inventory of biogas bacteria decked out in mining garb. In its cartoon video, bacteria miners chip away at apples and other organic wastes as they create biogas. Another video example is GE’s 2011 Superbowl Commercial with “Electric Cows” and a quick description of how their eco-imagination department supports renewable energy through biogas. A cow crowd-surfs at the end through blasts of methane flares. Classic. While anaerobic digestion is a natural process that has been around for thousands of years, it’s still a relatively new concept for our society that videos are helping to explain.

What’s truly fortunate for those telling the organics management story is the sheer passion that people feel about different sectors surrounding anaerobic digestion’s spheres of influence: waste, energy and agriculture. Recyclers love landfill diversion, and with organics comprising roughly 30% of the average garbage can, this group simply salivates over source separated organics (SSO) programs. It seems every week brings news of a new organics or manure recycling program popping up in a North American community. In order to encourage this trend and serve as a conduit of information, Harvest shines spotlights on local leaders that have taken organic diversion programs from idea to execution through its “SSO Superheroes” program. This program and others further the momentum — and passion — people feel for organic diversion, and dovetails nicely into anaerobic digestion’s needs for a clean source of feedstock.

Clean tech aficionados are also a passionate group. The professional social networking site LinkedIn shows many networks such as the CleanTech Group and the Clean Economy Network bridging hundreds of clean tech, biogas, bioenergy, and sustainability movers and shakers. Other networking sites like Twitter and Facebook also grow the buzz around clean tech. The American Biogas Council has grown momentum quickly with more than 100 members, and is poised to corral and catalyze the conversation around anaerobic digestion.

Finally, on the back end, the composting community’s roots run deep. Luckily for the anaerobic digestion industry it’s a short leap for people who care about soil structure (composting) to understanding the value of harnessing energy and the nutrients of organics (anaerobic digestion and composting). While the three groups that anaerobic digestion transects – waste, energy, and agriculture – have very distinct flavors, they share a common trait: they all care about the greater good. Increasingly we will see a cross-pollination of ideas and conversations as our society strives to put its organic materials to their highest and best use.

Another tactic for messaging to the general public is making links to pop culture. Waste Management’s blog, Greenopolis, appeals to a more general audience. Their article on Harvest’s technologies and processes compares anaerobic digestion to the hit 80s flick Back to the Future with a car that flies on coffee grounds and banana peels. David William House, author of The Complete Biogas Handbook, wrote an article entitled Biogas Is Renewable Energy’s Cinderella, eloquently equating biogas to the belle of the ball. People can relate to this rags-to-riches metaphor. These threads of the story of anaerobic digestion are starting to be woven into the fabric of our society.

In Part Two of this article, I’ll discuss about the facts that back up North America’s impending adoption of anaerobic digestion, how the transition will happen and what the future might look like.

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